Far From Albuquerque
CHICAGO – Ernie Banks will forever be remembered as one of the best baseball players to never get into postseason play. However, he will forever be remembered as one of the game’s most gentle souls, as the good natured man from Dallas always wanted to “play two” in the “friendly confines” of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Grateful for the ability to play baseball for a living, Banks had no interest in changing the world – especially one that was still going through integration on and off the field of play. His ideas on the word ‘race’ were reflected in how it affected his own life: the run to beat the throw.
Banks was picked up by the legendary Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1950. At the advice of Cool Papa Bell, Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil had signed him from an amateur team in Texas. After an average first season with the Monarchs, 1953 saw a young Ernie Banks return from two years of duty in the armed forces. It was then that he began to show wonderful promise, batting in 47 runs in just 46 games. After Banks hit a homerun in the East-West Game at Comiskey Park that same year, Buck was sure that the kid was something special. When he left his job with the Negro Leagues to join the Chicago Cubs, O’Neil took remembered what had seen in Comiskey that day, and signed Banks for the second time, making him the first African-American to play for the National League ballclub in the Chicago.
Coming into the majors as a young shortstop near the end of the 1953 season, Banks did not look much like the power hitter he came to be known as. On September 20 of that year, Banks gave Cub fans a glimpse of what to expect, as he hit the first homerun of his career. Slim, tall and wiggling his bat nervously while waiting for an incoming pitch, one would never guess how much power was generated from his quick and strong wrists. A scout later touted that the thin-framed rook had “wrists right up to his armpits”. It was two years later, in 1955, that he set the record for most homeruns by a shortstop, with 44. He broke that same record four years later, with 47 round trippers. In a five year period, he had slammed more homers than anyone in baseball – more than guys named Mantle, Mays and Aaron. And, though erratic at the beginning of his career, Ernie became a hard working, dependable shortstop, making only 12 errors in over 500 tries in the last year of the decade. Such accolades earned him back-to-back league MVP awards in 1958 and 1959.
Quickly becoming a fan favorite in the mid-1950s, Banks became just as known for his interactions with fans and his jubilant spirit, as he did his marvelous craft. His modesty was also legendary, as he had declined the Cubs’ offer to give him a day at Wrigley, as he felt he had not been around long enough to deserve such an honor.
Banks continued his dominance into the 1960s, with remarkable performances in the 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1965 seasons. Though, the Chicago Cubs, who had managed but one .500 season in the 1950s, seemed destined to suffer the same fate in the early 1960s. Due to a string of injuries, Banks began to show his age as well, moving to regular duty as a first baseman in 1963. It was in 1966, with the hiring of Manager Leo Durocher, that the Cubbies began to show life. That season saw young pitching talent, such as Ken Holtzman, Bill Hands and Ferguson Jenkins. Rich Nye and Joe Niekro came to the team the year after, and helped Chicago reach third place, the highest the club had finished since 1946. In 1968, amid many injuries and setbacks, they strengthened their team with the additions of Phil Regan, Al Spangler, Jim Hickman and Willie, and again finished third. It was thought that all of the pieces of the puzzle were in place. 1969 would finally be their year.
Pictured is Ernie sitting on the dugout steps, signing autographs for his adoring fans on April 9, the first game of the 1969 season. The familiar bricked wall dugout of Wrigley provides a backdrop for equally delighted members of the Cubs grounds crew. In the twilight of his career, the then-38 year old Ernie Banks was playing in his last great season, a season that saw him drive in over 100 runs, a season that saw the Cubs rise to the top of the class in the National League by holding first place for 143 games out of 163.
And then, just as dramatically, the Cubs fell to second place on September 9th. All of the Cubs overworked regulars, faired poorly as the long season dragged on. Ron Santo, Randy Hundley and Glenn Beckert all slumped, and Ernie Banks hit a measly .186 with 1 homer in 86 at bats during the month of September. Try as they may, the Cubbies failed to regain their lead, and missed the playoffs for yet another season.
Though, no matter how historic their team’s collapse, Cub fans could never hold ill will towards their boys, most especially Ernie Banks. For so many years during his career, and years after, when his number was retired and he was elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to them, Banks was the symbol of all that was good in baseball – he was about the sport, plain and simple.